The Enfield Rifle, 1859

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Source: Chambers’s Journal, 16 April 1859

In ancient times, when the bow was the weapon used by nearly every nation, the strength, as well as the skill of the archer, was a matter of the greatest importance. Kingdoms, we are told, were sometimes allotted to that son who could draw to the full extent the bow of his father.

When we observe, even in the present age of rapid progress, the difficulty that there is to make individuals move in any but old grooves, it is not surprising that there was a great struggle before the first rude firearms were preferred to the bow and arrow as weapons of war. With the latter, men were well acquainted, and were able to use them with great skill; the former were rough in construction, and the bow-men naturally looked upon them with contempt.

It is surprising, until within the last few years, how little alteration or improvement was made in the firearms used by the army. Old systems, and the non-expansive natures of those in authority, naturally retarded progress. Many of us may remember the prejudice which existed against the introduction of the Minié rifle, and the partiality which was shewn to Brown Bess. ‘It did its work in the Peninsula, and you had better not make any change,’ was the remark of many a veteran warrior. Brown Bess is now amongst the things which were, but are not; whilst its successor, the Minié, has also had to haul down its colours to the infallible Enfield Rifle, which may be said to wear at present the champion’s belt. How long it will be before the day of the Enfield rifle is past, and ‘breech-loaders’ usurp its place, is amongst the mysteries of the future.

It is our present business to describe some of the wonders connected with the construction of the Enfield rifle; and we will now ask the reader to accompany us from London to the Enfield factory.

Twelve miles from the Shoreditch station of the Eastern Counties Railway, we reach a dreary-looking station, entitled ‘Ordnance Factory.’ Quitting the train, and crossing the rails, we at once find ourselves in a muddy lane, on each side of which are flat meadows, separated from each other by four feet wide ditches. Here the tadpoles are sentimentally reposing at the bottom of the water, as though reflecting upon that vicious state of society which requires fifteen hundred rifles to be turned out per week from the smoky buildings in that peaceful locality. A quarter of a mile of muddy lane, three hundred yards of wooden footpath, a quarter of a mile of canal bank, and we cross the bridge which leads to the Ordnance Factory, Enfield.

Producing our credentials, we are at once handed over to a major-domo, who conducts us into a vast room filled with machinery. Through this we pass, and enter a smithy, where we are introduced to the principal, who is instructed to shew us all in his department, to pass us on to the next superintendent and so on through the various branches.

‘And what do you call the various branches?’ we naturally ask.

‘There is the Bayonet, the Ramrod, the Lock, the Stock, the Furniture – that is, the brass-fittings, &c – and the Barrel.’

‘And how many processes does each pass through?’

‘The bayonet, about forty-eight; the ramrod, about thirty; the lock, about two hundred and twenty; the stock, twenty-four; the barrel, sixty-six.’

‘Of how many parts is the Enfield rifle composed?’

‘Of fifty-six.’

Three or four days at least would be required to examine thoroughly the machines and their results.

The bayonet first arrests attention; and we observe a stout little cylindrical chunk of iron, about four inches in length, which we are told is the first state of the bayonet. This is merely the iron, which is supplied from Sheffield, and which is to be educated into the deadly weapon, for the use of which the English soldier has ever been famous. Heating and hammering are the earliest ordeals to which the bayonet is subjected. Heavy hammers, swung in circles by strong arms, descend with unerring precision on the required spot. One man, with a pair of iron fingers, holds and turns the metal, while the other knocks it about. To a nervous bystander; this process is very trying; for he who holds will certainly receive the blow of the hammer on the centre of his forehead, if he does not move his head just one inch and three-fourths. The hammer approaches; the man bends back only just in time, and only just the required distance. Again he is in danger – again he escapes; and thus he has gone on, blow after blow, day after day, month after month. Talk about confidence in princes, let us see on earth more confidence than this holder places in his hammerer. We are, however, convinced that sooner or later the final catastrophe must come, and the blacksmith will be killed by his partner. It was here that we saw the water-gauge, by which the amount of iron requisite to form a bayonet is accurately tested – a tube containing a given quantity of water; into which the iron is thrust. When the water reaches the top of the gauge, the correct quantity of iron has been inserted. However irregular the iron may be in form, the right amount is sure to be thus obtained.

Our attention is now called to a curious machine behind us. This looks like some nervous infuriated monster mouth, which is armed with a row of grinders. The creature is evidently in a rabid state, for the grinders are being gnashed together with fearful rapidity, while the water runs over them. A smith boldly approaches this, holding in his hand a red-hot bar of iron, which he places between the grinders. Delight at once seizes them, for they move more rapidly than before; and instantly the bar of iron is chawed out a couple of inches longer.

The bar is then inserted in a fresh place, is again lengthened, and so on until we are shewn a stick of iron not at all unlike a bayonet. A most formidable individual then measures and inspects, gauges and tests, this piece of iron; length, breadth, weight, and colour are examined. Should the bit be below or above gauge, below or above par, ‘mulct so much’ is the fate of the last workman. Each man thus has his responsibility, from which there is no escape, and for which there is the simple remedy, ‘a fine.’

The finishing-room is entered from the smithy, and is about two hundred feet square. Wheels and men, cranks and levers, leather bands and iron, are moving apparently in the greatest confusion, but yet all is regulated with the accuracy of clock-work.

At one end of the room are a set of offices, in which the foremen carry on their duties. In front of these, and commanded by them, are avenues, down which the raw unfinished work is conveyed. Passing from hand to hand, from machine to machine, the bayonet, ramrod, or lock starts ‘in the rough,’ and returns complete, tested as it travels between one machine and its neighbour, and again as it arrives at its destination. Improvements are frequently being made in the various machinery, by which expensive hand-labour is saved. By means of a huge iron stamping-hammer; £1500 a year has been saved in the formation of the exterior of the lock. The filing of the trigger-guard by machinery has saved five guineas a week. If this rate of saving be continued, the Enfield rifle may soon be made for a very trifling sum.

The machine called the copying-machine is extensively used at Enfield; this was invented by an Englishman some years ago, for the purpose of copying the fine lines of statuary. The Americans were the first who employed it to the purpose of gun-making. It is simply that one instrument moves round an iron model, whilst another moves in exactly a similar manner over the iron or wood which is to be cut. Thus perfect similarity of form is obtained, and a particular part of one lock will fit into the similar part of any other which has been made at this manufactory.

Arrangements are made so that the portion of work which may require the greatest time may be given the greatest number of machines or workmen. Thus each portion is finished at exactly the same time, and is brought to the workman who puts them together.

The execution of the wood-work is even more wonderful than that of the iron, not that the machines are more ingenious, but the results appear more magical, on account of the rapidity with which they are obtained. During the examination of the construction of the lock, we have gradually arrived at the conclusion that the teaching of our early youth as regards the hardness of metals must have been very false.